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Musings from Arledge: Mayberry, USC’s players and being emotionally invested

Can I start with something completely unrelated to USC football?  Will you indulge me?

The show was a little before my time, but as a kid I would sometimes watch reruns of the Andy Griffith Show.  Does anybody remember that episode where the Mayor had to fire Sheriff Andy Taylor for showing up to work drunk and chose to name Barney Fife Interim Sheriff?  And then the Mayor made Fife the permanent Sheriff.  And then gave him a long, lucrative extension.  And then, year after year, issued press releases to the people of Mayberry explaining how happy he was that Fife would be returning as Sheriff for yet another year even though Fife accidentally trampled the evidence at crime scenes, couldn’t connect the dots on simple investigations, and turned Mayberry into a crime magnet as all criminals from miles around choose Mayberry for their next scheme, knowing the nice, bumbling sheriff there was no threat to them.  But, hey, Sheriff Fife was a really nice man and properly deferential to the Mayor and City Council. 

Oh, there was no episode like that?  Well, there should have been.  Believe me, there’s comedic gold in that plot line about a generally good-hearted but painfully inept leader of an organization stumbling around while everybody else wonders both how he can possibly be retained in that position and, at the same time, what new hijinks will ensue as long as he is. 

Anyway, sorry for the long digression on an irrelevant subject.  Let’s get back to what this article is supposed to be about: USC football. 

I try not to subject myself to Clay Helton’s post-game comments.  I will sometimes partake just to get fodder for this column, but that peek behind the curtain comes with an emotional price that I’m not always willing to pay.  I did, however, happen to catch Clay Helton’s comments about how great it was that USC didn’t turn the ball over.  True, coach, turning the ball over is bad, and USC has a nasty habit over the last few years of turning it over a lot.  So, huzzah?

Except this stat should terrify Clay Helton.  Ordinarily when a blue-blood program and division favorite almost loses to a bottom feeder program – in this case, one that was already awful before a bunch of its best players decided over the offseason that they could no longer tolerate the place and left – it’s because of turnovers and freak plays.  The favorite might sleepwalk through the first half.  You get a muffed punt, then a pick on a tipped ball, then you give up a punt return, and all of a sudden the better team finds itself in a hole, and as they inevitably come storming back, all of the suspense is on whether there will be enough time for the clearly superior team to overcome the early deficit. 

But that’s not what we saw against Arizona.  What we saw, sadly, was two evenly matched teams, two teams with equally giant problems.  Sure, USC has more players that will play on Sundays than Arizona does, but the difference between the teams wasn’t substantial in any way.  USC didn’t dig themselves a hole with turnovers.  There just isn’t much separation between USC and a lousy Arizona team that was rightly picked to finish last in the Pac 12 south.

We don’t have time to go through all of the problems with USC football.  WeAreSC has already contracted with Ken Burns to do a 12-part documentary on the subject.  In the meantime, Joel Klatt and Gus Johnson expressed their bewilderment throughout the game Saturday.  Urban Meyer took his shot at diagnosing the problem yesterday.  But nothing any of those paid talking heads said was any surprise to those who follow this program closely. 

So let’s just hit the highlights, shall we?  The offense is a mess.  The offensive line is the foundation for any program, and USC has ignored (or incompetently tried to work on) that foundation for years.  Now the whole building looks ready to topple.  USC fans look forward to 4th and short the way Freddie Krueger’s victims look forward to bedtime.  The end is both predictable and terrifying.

Our alleged whiz kid of an OC is still stumped by teams that rush three and drop eight.  Any average USC team with a modicum of self-respect would have run for 350 yards against the Wildcats and started pulling starters in the middle of the third.  But Mike Leach’s padawan didn’t even decide to try and run the football until the last series of the half.  Was Graham Harrell surprised by Arizona’s game plan?  Opposing teams have been doing this to USC since BYU early last year, and he still can’t figure it out!?  And he wasn’t throwing the ball on practically every first down in the first half because the passing game was dominating.  We could excuse that.  No, for most of the game, Kedon Slovis was hovering right around five yards per attempt.  You know what five yards per attempt is?  A mediocre off-tackle play for Thunder or Lightning.  That’s not a healthy statistic for your pass game.

The defense is also a mess.  Half the time we’re outflanked by alignment and just daring the other team to run outside for big yardage.  Our opponents tend to accept that dare.  We grab wideouts even when we’re in good position to cover them.  We allow opposing quarterbacks to run for first downs just about anytime they want.  Now, you have to extend some grace when the opposing quarterback is a truly gifted runner like Jayden Daniels.  Excellent running quarterbacks are going to make their plays, even against good, disciplined defenses. 

But Grant Gunnell?  You’re going to let that guy run for five first downs in a half?  That guy is doing so much damage with his feet that you have to commit a spy to him?  Geez.  Gunnell has some skills as a drop-back passer.  But he’s not exactly Kyler Murray or Michael Vick running the ball.  I don’t know if Arizona likes to steal handicapped parking spaces from the disabled the way UCLA players do.  But if they were into that, I think Grant Gunnell could just send a video of him running to the Arizona DMV and they’d send him a handicapped parking placard legitimately.  But that didn’t stop him from tearing up USC’s defense with his legs in the first half.  Maybe that’s what happens to a defense when the entire linebacking corps is abducted by aliens.  (No, I’m not reporting that as news.  I’m a columnist, not a reporter.  That’s just my current working theory.)

None of this is to say that USC has no players.  They clearly do.  I’m not sure that Kedon Slovis is completely right, but the kid is a player.  There is real talent at receiver, especially Amon-Ra and Drake London.  Markese Stepp will be an NFL starter for many years.  Marlon T is a stud.  His little brother – Little T? – is on his way to becoming one.  Drake Jackson is a beast.  Hunter Echols did some nice things yesterday.  Hufanga is a monster when he’s healthy, which is infrequent but makes the healthy periods that much more enjoyable, I suppose.

USC still has some football players.  Not as many as they used to have.  Not as many as they should have.  Not all of the ones they have get developed the way a better coach and staff would develop them.  But there are still some guys who can play on that roster.

But with every year that USC continues the madness of keeping Clay Helton in charge, the talent advantage that USC has over its conference foes will continue to decline.  Oregon probably already has better players.  In a couple of years, a few of the other Pac 12 schools will as well.  And then the difference in coaching ability and program culture will be even more dramatic than it already is.  The elite prospects are running from Clay Helton like Clay is trying to pick their pockets.  And that’s not a bad analogy, come to think of it, because the top prospects want to be high NFL draft picks, and entrusting your NFL future to Clay Helton probably does result in one less zero on your first contract.

And none of this is because USC can’t compete for top players.  Urban Meyer said again yesterday that USC should be competing for a spot in the playoff every year.  He would know.  When Urban Meyer runs a program, his team does compete for a spot in the playoff every year.  But that’s the difference between making your sheriff Wyatt Earp rather than Barney Fife. 

But it doesn’t take an all-time great to dominate a lousy Arizona team.  It just takes a healthy USC program to dominate bottom feeders.  USC is not a healthy program.  The Trojans are just about equal to bottom-feeding Arizona.  We saw that yesterday.  USC is a small step behind Arizona State, but given enough lucky breaks at the end, can pull out an upset over the Sun Devils.  Is that where USC should be in the fifth full year of a coaching tenure? 

I have no coaching resume, so Clay Helton probably doesn’t care what people like me think.  He’ll just set his jaw and continue to distribute game balls to his superiors.  So let’s just try a thought experiment: imagine that USC didn’t have Clay Helton as its head football coach.  Imagine that five years ago USC hired a different head coach that was completely inept at his job.  Would the Arizona game have looked any different?  The ASU game?  The 2019 season?  The 2018 season?

I also don’t know what goes on inside the heads of Mike Bohn, Carol Folt, and the Board of Trustees.  I know that Carol Folt smiled at us in her Zoom Salute to Troy speech and talked about how much she loves USC football.  That was nice.  So how about this thought experiment: imagine that USC’s administration didn’t care anything about football and had no desire to invest any time, effort, or money into building a winning program.  Would the personnel decisions of the Carol Folt tenure have looked any different?  How about the Max Nikias tenure?        

USC football is in deep trouble.  Not because more banners will start flying over the stadium.  It’s in trouble because soon nobody will care enough to fly banners over the stadium.  It’s hard to be emotionally invested in this program.  The people in charge either can’t perform their basic job functions or don’t care about the success of the program.  Maybe both.  Either way, I still have just barely enough anger and frustration to pen columns like this.  But that emotional connection is fading fast.  Right now, a lot of us care more about USC football than Carol Folt does.  And that’s never a good position to be in as a fan – which is probably why there are less of us who care deeply about the program than there were five years ago.  And unless major changes are made, there will be far fewer of us five years from now. 

Carthago delenda est.  Please.

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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